The denunciation of Islamic fundamentalism has slowly evolved into an attack on all Muslims and Islam. This hostility is rooted in the belief that Islam cannot be integrated into secular and liberal society. However, as Olivier Roy makes clear, Muslim intellectuals have made it possible for Muslims to live concretely in a secularized world while maintaining the identity of a "true believer." They have formulated a language that recognizes two spaces: that of religion and that of secular society.
Western society is unable to recognize this process, Roy argues, because it assumes religious practice is embedded within a specific, traditional culture. Instead, Roy shows that new forms of religiosity, such as Islamic fundamentalism and Christian evangelicalism, have come to thrive in posttraditional, secular contexts precisely because they remain detached from any cultural background. In recognizing this, Roy recasts the debate concerning Islam and democracy. He distinguishes between Arab and non-Arab Muslims, hegemony and tolerance, and the role of the umma and the sharia in Muslim religious life. Supporting his arguments with extensive research, Roy demonstrates the limits of our understanding of contemporary Islamic religious practice and the role of Islam as a screen onto which Western societies have projected their own identity crisis.
Secularism Confronts Islam is the latest brilliant little book by the French scholar Roy, one of the world's leading academic experts on Islam, especially Islam in Europe. Roy tackles an important and controversial question: Is Islam compatible with Europe's increasingly secular society? Many scholars, politicians, and polemicists say no, arguing that Islam makes no distinction between religion and politics and that it is not just a religion but also a culture, which makes it hard to assimilate. Roy's view is more nuanced. He takes issue with the notion that there is a single, immutable version of Islam -- the claim of Muslim fundamentalists -- and reminds us that the Catholic Church also resisted secularism and the separation of church and state until at least the beginning of the twentieth century. Roy sees most Muslims in Europe as loyal citizens trying to find ways to practice their faith while abiding by the laws of their secular societies. One example: French Muslim organizations posing legal challenges to the French government's ban on wearing headscarves in schools but rejecting violent or extralegal measures to achieve their aims. Roy is not Pollyannaish about the challenges of Islam in Europe, but his highly informed exploration of those challenges is an important contribution to an often emotional debate.<